Tag Archives: modern sculpture

David Smith in Melbourne

The great American modern art critic Clement Greenberg grandly described David Smith simply as “the best sculptor anywhere”. Although David Smith never came to Australia, his influence on Melbourne’s sculpture can be seen in several public sculptures. There are works by Dan Wollmering, Anthony Pryor and Geoffrey Bartlett that are clearly influenced by Smith.

Smith had a massive influence on Australian sculpture, a tidal wave of American mid-century modern rolling across the Pacific Ocean. He helped change sculpture’s format from the vertical portrait to the horizontal landscape; Henry Moore’s abstracted figurative sculptures of mothers were already reclining in that direction. He also changed the basic structure of sculpture from a solid core to an extended form, which he created in space and steel. And the source of inspiration from an external model, illustrating the civic consciousness, to the sculptor’s unconscious, connected to the collective unconscious.

You can see Smith’s influence in Geoffrey Bartlett’s sculpture at RMIT (on the right). It almost quotes Smith’s Hudson River Landscape, 1951 (on the left). It is part of an early series of sculptures and similar to his sculpture that used to be in the NGV’s moat. It is a framed landscape that contains a gravity-defying dynamism. A tension and stored energy in the collection of forms attached to rods that suggest pivot, pitch and spring. I always expect Bartlett’s early sculptures to do something.

Smith wrote clear and concise statements about sculpture. “I start with one part, then a unit of parts, until a whole sculpture appears.” (David Smith “Notes on My Work” Arts, Feb 1960 Special David Smith Issue)

Dan Wollmering Xanthe

This could be the instructions for Dan Wollmering’s Xanthe 1988. It is sited in a garden outside the white neo-classical Glen Eira City Hall (in Caulfield at the corner of Glen Eira and Hawthorn Roads). An energetic 3.5-metre metal sculpture with its curving and angular forms frames the spaces between its metal form. One part responding to next part like a guitar solo.

It is entirely modernist, not only influenced by Smith but the blue edges and white planes colours reference to the Cubist works of Fernand Léger. Xanthe was a brave choice for Caulfield City Council, with the controversy over Ron Robertson-Swann’s Vault still hanging over local commissions of modern public sculpture.

Vault is another example of Smith’s influence. Even though it has the metal planes and colourful skin of Anthony Caro’s sculptures. For Smith’s influence din’t just roll west; it spread across the Atlantic too. He influenced British sculptors like Anthony Caro and generations of English (and Australian) artists through him.

Ron Robertson-Swann Vault

If there was an Abstract Expressionist version of the Village People (an ugly, alcoholic version of the disco ensemble), David Smith would be the construction worker (both shared the same moustache). (Jackson Pollock the cowboy, and you can fill out the rest.) For there is the macho energy of Smith’s background as a car and tank fabricator in his welded metal sculptures. And like disco, it is a style from the last century.

Will David Smith continue to be an influence on Melbourne sculpture?


A Hostile Installation

A hostile installation is where a public sculpture is installed in a very unsympathetic way, like John Kelly’s Cow Up A Tree which has been located behind a ‘temporary’ coffee shop in Docklands for years. There are a few hostile installations of public sculpture in Melbourne and then there is hatred directed at Marc Clark’s Portal, 1973.

This is what the sculpture should look like. Marc Clark’s maquette for Portal.

The hostility directed at this sculpture is exhibited in both neglect, storing a sign next to it, and blocking views of the sculpture with a corrugated iron ticket booth. Clark’s Portal as its name indicates is meant to be a gateway, standing at one of the entrances to Myer Music Bowl. Instead there is a rectangular booth stuck directly front of it. What is wrong with the Myer Music Bowl? The Myer Music Bowl is run by the Melbourne Arts Centre, who should know how to take care of a sculpture.

This is how it has been installed

Sculptor and educator Marc Clark did nothing to invite this. This is Australian passive aggressive indifference; all antipathy with no responsibility. Both Clark and his sculpture are victims of the hostile attitude; they just happen to be in the way of philistine forces from some staff at the Myer Music Bowl.

A versatile sculptor Clarke created the formal abstracts, like Portal, and representational sculptures, like his Captain Cook statue at the Captain Cook Cottage in Fitzroy Gardens or his bust of botanist and explorer, Baron Ferdinand Von Mueller in the Botanic Gardens.

Sculptures need to be maintained and do not magically remain in perfect condition. Fortunately they are more easily repairable than other public art (see my post on the conservation of street art). There are sculptures that are regularly repainted like Ron Robertson-Swann’s Vault. Public sculptures are sometimes damaged in accidents, like when a truck hit Peter Corlett’s Mr Poetry and broke its leg. Portal needs to have rust and moss removed and it’s surface repaired and repainted.

A new location has to be found for the ticket booth or Portal, so that both can function as they should.


Inge King – Retrospective @ NGV

Without a doubt Inge King is Melbourne’s most important sculptor of the second half of the twentieth century. Her importance comes from being amongst the first modern sculptors in Melbourne, her many public sculptures and her long life.

Inge King, Sun Ribbon 1980-82

Inge King, Sun Ribbon 1980-82

Inge King Constellation is a retrospective exhibition at the NGV Ian Potter Centre (Fed Square). In giving an overview of her life’s work the exhibition shows the point where King found her style and then how it developed. Her early works resembles various European modern sculptors: Jan Arp, Juan Miro, Henry Moore, along with a bit of Alexander Calder.

Sculpture was, until the 20th century, made from raw materials, clay, stone, wood, metal; then came assemblage, a particularly modern method because it requires previously manufactured materials to assemble. In 1959 King acquired and learnt to use an arc welder; it was with the welded assemblage of steel plates that she found her style. It was a style that was perfect for public sculpture. A field guide to recognising a King’s public sculpture would probably note they are assemblages of metal and mostly painted black.

King’s public sculptures are very familiar to many people in Melbourne. Her sculptures are across the city from Melbourne University, the Arts Centre to EastLink. Students and graduates of Melbourne University would be familiar with King Sun Ribbon (1970).

Inge King, Forward Surge 1972-74

Inge King, Forward Surge 1972-74

Forward Surge (1972-74 installed in 1981) fits perfectly into the curved architecture of the Arts Centre Melbourne and Hamer Hall, turning the horizontal curves of the buildings vertical. The curves delight small children who try to climb them only to have to slide back down when the curve becomes to steep. King remarks in a video interview that although she understands why the council wants to stop skateboarders using Forward Surge, because they have to repaint it, she is glad that skateboarders do use it.

As a member of the Centre 5 group King wanted to reunited modern sculpture with architecture. Her Red Rings (2008), located at the junction of the EastLink pedestrian and bike trail and the Dandenong Creek trail, are three steel rings painted red. The human scale of the Red Rings, 2.5 metres in diameter allows for people to move through them.

The NGV’s exhibition has many of the maquettes, at various scales, for these public sculptures. There is the maquette for the bird form, Sheerwater (1994) in front of the Esso building on Southbank.

Inge King, Sheerwater, 1994

Inge King, Sheerwater, 1994

The exhibition gives further insight into King’s interest in reuniting sculpture with architecture, one of the five objectives of the Centre 5 group that King was involved with. Her sculptures can be walls, screens and arches but they can also relate to architecture by projecting from walls or, made of aluminium instead of steal, hanging from the ceiling.

King’s arrival in Melbourne in 1951 marks the beginning of modern Melbourne; the beginning of an international outlook aware of Europe and the USA rather than provincial colonial view. King said that when she arrived Melbourne was “like opening a can of flat beer”. It was the arrival of post-war immigrants that saved Melbourne’s culture and made this contemporary, artistic city.

There was no interest in modern sculpture in Melbourne when King arrived and to make a living she turned to jewellery making. The exhibition includes two vitrines of her boldly modern jewellery; vambrace style bracelets set with opals, necklaces and rings with geometric elegance that can be seen in her most recent sculptures.

Given Inge King’s importance in the history of Australian art it is a shame that this exhibition was so disjointed. The exhibition is located in the large foyers of each floor of Ian Potter Centre, extending a bit into a gallery on the second floor and on the landings of stairs. Starting on the third floor with her earliest work, her classic black sculptures are on the second floor and her most recent work in stainless steel on the ground floor. Extending into the gallery space on the second floor allows the curator to include a mini-retrospective of King’s husband, Grahame King, a notable print maker.


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